This post contains plot details for Sex Education season 4.
When Sex Education’s first season dropped on Netflix at the start of 2019, it felt like a raunchy, cringe-inducing relief from Trump and Brexit-era politics. Set in a retro parallel universe, it had one foot in the past (lots of 80s music and clothing) and the other in the present (iPhones, contemporary pop culture references). The series initially revolved around virginal teenager Otis (Asa Butterfield), who picks up a knack for advice from his sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson). With encouragement from tough girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Maeve (Emma Mackey), Otis begins an underground counseling service for his schoolmates at Moordale Secondary School, offering often graphic tips on a startling array of carnal challenges. Vaginismus, revenge porn, alien sex fantasies, breast-binding, chlamydia, abortion, anal douching, slut shaming, sexual assault: Sex Education explored them all with its trademark humor and kindness.
It seemed like a fun, wholesomely filthy update of classic American teen comedies as reimagined by a smart young British playwright (creator Laurie Nunn). But four years later, as the series comes to a close, Sex Education feels less like an escapist romp and more like a front on the cultural battlefield. At a moment when American schools are increasingly banning books and blocking classroom instruction on LGBTQ+ topics and sex education generally, when abortion rights are ever more threatened and attacks on gender-affirming care for trans youth mount in both the US and UK, a series that sprinkles sex positivity over every surface resonates in a whole different way. Especially when this series is a massive global success.
As if recognizing this, Sex Education ended season three in a blaze of rebellion against the forces of repression. Over the course of that season, new Moordale headmaster Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke) had attempted to repair the school’s bad reputation (it was labeled “sex school” by a local tabloid) by forcing students to wear uniforms, censoring sex ed classes, and publicly shaming those she deemed sexually deviant. Moordale’s student body exploded in glorious insolence, mounting an extravaganza—complete with a school band version of Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away” and a student-painted Wall of Vulva—that led to the school being defunded and shut down.
Now some of the characters have transferred to Cavendish. A ”student-led” school, Cavendish could not be more different from stuffy Moordale, thanks to its candy-colored color palette, its daily meditation practice and its flamboyantly progressive values. “Everyone seems happy,” Otis marvels to his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) when they first arrive. “And queer!” adds Eric, who has learned not to hide his own queerness over the last three seasons. He is delighted to discover that Cavendish’s most popular kids—Abbi (Anthony Lexa) and Roman (Felix Mufti) —are trans. They quickly absorb him into their clique, creating a small rift between Eric and Otis. “He’s always been my person, but sometimes I feel he doesn’t entirely get me,” Eric tells his new friends of Otis. When Eric later gently tries to explain that he and Otis really don’t talk about their racial or financial or religious differences, Otis squirms away from the conversation.
Otis has always been alternatively endearing and self-centered. His brattiness takes center stage this season as he arrives at the new school assuming that he will resume his role as sex therapist, and finds a young woman named O (Thaddea Graham) already operating a practice at Cavendish. He asserts his privilege over O, nastily trying to swipe her clients. But his attempts to introduce himself to the school backfires when he inadvertently broadcasts his sad attempt at a dick pic (complete with poorly trimmed pubic hair) to his classmates. “No one will want to have therapy with creepy pube man,” he says mournfully afterwards.
Sex Education has never been The Otis Show, though. Over the seasons, it has evolved into an ensemble production full of eccentricity and sincerity. Even those who started out seeming like stock characters—Adam the homophobic bully, Jackson the star athlete, Aimee the vacant blonde—make themselves vulnerable. They are each transformed by rubbing up (sometimes literally) against others in the school community. All three of them are still on journeys of personal discovery this season, though Aimee’s is perhaps the most unexpected. She was already the most joyfully eccentric character on the show, a popular girl who embraced her weirdness. In addition to keeping a masturbation journal and making odd cupcakes, she begins exploring art as a way to process the trauma from her sexual assault a few seasons back. A delightful romance sparks between Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) and Isaac (George Ross Robinson), who introduces her to artists that encourage self-expression like Tracy Emin and Ana Mendieta.
Another character who rises to the top is Cal (Dua Saleh), a nonbinary teen first introduced last season. By gathering together multiple queer characters of color, Sex Education avoids making tokens of them. Tortured by gender dysphoria, Cal seeks advice from Roman, who has already had top surgery. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Roman says gleefully, but admits that his family could afford to pay for private care. Cal has already been on a waiting list for years, and might have to wait several more just for a first appointment with a National Health Service gender affirming care specialist. “I can’t get the care that I need to actually live my life,” they say, despair snowballing until it finally grabs the attention of the entire school.
Watching season four, it occurred to me what a delicate balance the series has maintained all these years, flitting between bawdiness and sincerity. But this season tips the scales toward preachiness. A school elevator breakdown leaves wheelchair-bound Isaac helpless and apoplectic, inspiring him to mount a disruption so other students understand what it feels like to not be able to get where they need to go. It’s intended as an aha moment: Even seemingly idyllic Cavendish has a blind spot, spending so much time thinking about sound baths and juice bars yet neglecting basic accessibility. Alas, the didactic speechifying drags down the episode, and Aimee going into cutesy revolutionary mode in a red beret doesn’t help matters.
What saves the series from collapsing into earnestness is its unexpected swerves. Eric’s spiritual trip this season is the most extreme example of that. Not only is he joyfully exploring his sexuality, but he’s also trying to figure out how to integrate his new openness into his religious faith—with a little help from the Black Jesus painting on his wall and some signs from God in the form of bird poo. While Otis has drawn all the attention for his sex advice, Eric has been a gentle, effervescent pastor in waiting. Gatwa is such a dazzling actor; whole worlds of emotion emerge from his eyes in every scene, grounding the most outlandish moments.
Some of the most poignant arcs in this final season belong to the adults, too. Sex Education’s parents generally mean well but are hampered by their own very human flaws. As Maeve says in her eulogy for her drug-addicted mum, “A mother can be a pretty shit parent sometimes and you can still love them and want them to get better.” Adam’s father spends the season on his journey of discovery via a class called “Being a Better Man,” but his attempts at sensitivity and connection just freak out his son. Jean, although suffering from postpartum depression, is still empathetic enough to help others, including Maeve, who must decide between staying in Moordale with Otis or returning to a celebrated writing program in the US.
Sex Education has always reveled in maximalism. You can imagine the writers hunched over the final scripts, frantically trying to build backstories and arcs for all of their beloved old characters, and the new ones, too. That leaves this final season feeling a bit like an overstuffed (if very comfy) sofa. Ultimately, though, the show is not at all about fan service. It dangles the whole Maeve-Ruby-Otis triangle before us but refuses to tie up romances or narratives in a neat bow. The characters are marching into adulthood on their own steam, still a bit confused and mortified but wide awake to the world’s possibilities. And even if Sex Education sometimes threatens to tip into a parody of wokeness, I will miss this oddball, horny, interracial Eden where everyone has the space to grow into themselves.
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